Things I know: I’m just me. I’m no critic, I’m barely a professional musician; I’m just a mom and a Pastor’s wife with little more to do than chase my kids and listen to Pandora. Truly. So I’m not sure why I am taking this review so very seriously. But I am. And I have. So here goes.
When I found out that the film Les Miserables would be released in mid-December, I made a note in my calendar to ensure that I would see it on opening day. Several weeks later, the opening date was changed to December 25th, and as a pastor’s wife and mom to a Christmas baby, I knew full well that I would no longer be able to see it the day it opened. Undaunted, I decided to take the pressure off of my husband and family, and chose to see it once school was back in session.
Yesterday was the day. I woke up, ready to enjoy the first ‘alone’ time I would have in many weeks… and immediately happened upon a barfing 8-year-old. That’s ok, I thought. Not today. No movie today. No big deal. So I continued on, tucking my deep desire to see the film on the big screen away for another indeterminate time… when Scott came home and said, ‘I’ve got this. You go’.
For he knew that the delay of this pilgrimage for another day might be too much for me to bear.
You see, it is only as the film has been released that I have been able to articulate why it matters so much to me. There is not another piece of music, another film, another album, another set of songs, that is as much the soundtrack to my adult life as this soundtrack is. I have been singing the songs from Les Miserables since the fall of 1987, when Mr. Anderson handed out the medley [the grey one] to our choir at Southwest High School in Green Bay. This doesn’t make me remotely unique – I bet most high school choirs in the late 80’s did this medley. But most choir members weren’t me, or my friends, gathered around the piano at 2050 White Oak Terrace in Green Bay night after night, singing the remarkable songs from this show, amidst the clouds of smoke from my dearest friends and their Carol Martens-appointed ash trays. Most every gathering, every trip to Kroll’s, every night together included at least a few moments around the piano, and these songs always managed to be sung, and my mom always popped her head into the living room to tell us how much she loved to hear us sing. Always.
So it was that blessed baggage that kept rising to the top when I took time to consider why I was so eager to see this movie. I am not normal. I know that. But this experience, even before I had it, was as sacred to me as almost anything. And I would not be thwarted, not by Christmas releases or barfing children.
I should also say that I read every word I could get my hands on about the film before it came out – and every scathing word and review, including those from some of my oldest and dearest friends, also musicians – and they painted a pretty grim picture. I wrestled long and hard with my expectations on the way up. Had I set myself up for disappointment? Could any film live up to my high stakes? I had purposed in my heart to go to take in the entire experience – not to critique the singing, which I knew wouldn’t be vocally sound or in most ways impressive – but for the love of the story. I knew that I couldn’t go wrong if I kept my focus on the story. Neither Amanda nor Russell could take that away from me. As Scott said, ‘So, you’ve decided to like it, no matter what. You really don’t even need to see it, then, because that could make you love it less’.
But see it, I did, and I settled into my seat with a gallon or so of diet Coke, ready to take it all in at noon, with only a handful of us in the theater.
I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. I don’t know how I could have been. Though I could sing you every word of the score – Truly. Every word. – I could not adequately prepare for the feast that I was about to be served.
I have never been so moved by a film. If Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne aren’t nominated for Oscars, there is no justice. There might not be higher praise that I can give the film than this:
nothing bothered me.
Do you know me? Because if you do, you know that things bother me. I had expressed eyebrow raises about the casting of Russell Crowe, and loud words of protest regarding Amanda Seyfried, whose singing in Mamma Mia was sub-par [at best]. But when sitting in those seats and taking in the story and the saga, I was completely unbothered by either one of them. Crowe sang like a man wrestling with his soul. I loved everything he did. His pharisaical struggle was a marvel to watch – to see a man so unable to grasp the truth that ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ was powerful… and the one transparent moment when he displayed a heart full of love was more than I could take. I was glad I was alone – have never sobbed so hard in a theater. And Seyfried, who thankfully got some vocal help [like a substitute] on the two high Bs, rose to the occasion marvelously. The bar was set very high for the two of them, and they performed both admirably and appropriately.
But oh my word. Eddie Redmayne. It would not be possible for me to love a Marius more than I have loved Michael Ball, but since I missed my window to see him perform Marius live, I believe my affections may have shifted. This young man, freckles and all, brought love-sick Marius to life in the most beautiful, pleasing way. His physical youthfulness only added to the poignancy of the unwinnable war he and his ‘brothers’ waged. Redmayne was a revelation. Where have they been hiding this guy? Samantha Barks as Eponine was pretty much perfect, but we expected that, because we all heard her on the 25th anniversary concert and agreed that she was a rockstar. Her translations to screen were perfect. She’ll be one to watch in the years ahead – she’s only 22!
Hugh Jackman was born to play Jean Valjean on screen. He was perfect. His eyes… oh my. The moment when he meets Cosette in the woods… and of course, the ending – the range that he covers in the 17-year spread of the story is mind-boggling. So, so good. Just so good.
What can be said about Anne Hathaway? This is most certainly her moment. The single-camera single-take performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is one for the record books, the archives. Whenever I sing the ‘pretty version’ of it now, it feels inappropriate and incomplete. That’s just a song. She sang a story – a snapshot – a heartbeat – rock bottom. Most affecting thing I’ve ever seen on screen.
All of the other second tier and supporting characters were great. The Thenardiers were a little boring, but that was better than too obnoxious. The boys at the barricade – especially Enjolras – were as would be expected – strong, good singers, passionate, and great at dying on camera.
Special shout-out to the child actors who played young Cosette and Gavroche with absolute perfection. Cosette stole my heart with her first note, and Gavroche with his last breath. Great kids.
Now, in fairness, let me be clear: I would have NO interest in hearing most of these singers in concert, nor would I stand in line to hear them sing pretty much anything else. But the collective whole of the movie worked for me. So well, in fact, that I fell apart – twice – on the phone after I left, after crying buckets of tears throughout the film. I had to run a couple of errands while I was up in the Dells, and I called Scott when I got to the van, and simply couldn’t speak. But it was when I called my Dad to check in and let him know that I had seen the film that I completely fell apart – tears, snot, sobs, the whole deal – I’m sure he thought that someone I loved had died. I just could NOT get it together. And that’s, I think, the magic of the Les Mis story in Victor Hugo’s words, and on stage and in film – that redemption is possible. That there is always hope. That dreams are worth dreaming. That mercy triumphs over judgment. That an eternity worth waiting for does indeed await us. That forgiveness has power. That unexpected generosity can change the course of one life – many lives.
Les Miserables made me miss my mom, and it made me miss Misty, Jini, Kurt, Aaron, Thomas, Scott, Jeff, Chris, Mr. A., and so many more; but it reminded me that to love another person is to see the face of God; that I am blessed to have loved lots and lots of ‘another persons’ in my life, and that I am so incredibly thankful to have been marked and shaped by a soundtrack like this. Go see this movie. Lay aside your high expectations for vocal perfection; you won’t find it here. But you will find a marvelous story, so beautifully told that you just might be changed.